Pharmaceutical research goes big data

eHealth Week, patient data

Big data is about integrating and analysing large volumes of data from different sources as quickly as possible. Within the EU’s Big Data Europe initiative, a big data platform for pharmaceutical research is on the agenda. First experiences suggest that it saves a lot of time and money.

[Valletta, MALTA] In order to research and develop new drugs, pharmaceutical research companies use dozens of different digital databases that are available via the internet. They provide information on chemical entities, drug targets, molecular pathways and disease-genetics. “So far, all major companies have basically been doing the same things. They have been integrating these data and have been trying to manage them themselves,” according Kiera McNeice from Big Data Europe.

This, she suggested, was both expensive and highly inefficient. During recent years, the European OpenPHACTS project has tried to start tackling this issue. The project has collected a long list of research questions that pharmaceutical companies typically have and for which they use the available databases to find answers. The OpenPHACTS project then built up a cloud-based big data infrastructure with underlying algorithms that connect the various databases and that can be used to find answers to as many of the 'typical' research questions as possible.

McNeice said that the OpenPHACTS project, which was funded under the umbrella of the Innovative Medicine Initiative, was a huge success. It features an open application programming interface that companies can use to plug in their respective research tools and that gives them access to all connected databases simultaneously: “Queries that once took days can now be answered in less than an hour,” said McNeice.

This initial success is why the platform has now been integrated as the life sciences pilot project in the EU-HORIZON-funded Big Data Europe Initiative. Big Data Europe’s goal is to put together an open source big data infrastructure for whoever might want to use it that covers businesses as diverse as healthcare, climate, energy, transport and viniculture.

For pharmaceutical research, the hope is that by rebuilding the OpenPHACTS framework within Big Data Europe, the tools will become more flexible, more scalable, and also more encompassing. In particular, Big Data Europe will enable integration of new data sources, for example toxicity databases. It also becomes possible to download and install the complete infrastructure. 

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